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May 2006

Hand in hand: formal and informal learning | Insights

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Shaping the future of learning

Margaret Kelsey, our Kineo US Correspondent, takes a look at why informal learning is moving to the top of the learning and development agenda in the US.

With the release of Jay Cross’s book 'Informal Learning', instructional designers are seeing a movement afoot in the world of learning technology that is in alignment with this understanding: the true seed of learning begins not with the teacher but with the learner. And, while learning-technology (such as CBT, simulations, EPSS, and online learning) is here to serve, there’s a new focus that recognises learners are not here to support these well-intentioned and purposed systems, but rather systems need to support learners. As we embrace this paradigm shift, with the creation and proliferation of tools that support communities of practice, such as wikis, blogs, podcasts, RSS feeds, self-designed intranets, and open (physical) learning spaces, we must always remember the heart of the discussion: the learner and the reason for professional skills development.

Inherently, adult learners are inclined to acquire new skills in response to an internal desire, often wed with professional security or advancement (such as taking a course that renews their credentials) or personal reward and fulfilment (such as learning how to work the finer details of Photoshop Essentials to create a family album). Regardless of the impetus, adult learners, unlike children, assume the responsibility and direct their energy to gain new information and apply their knowledge. Some are more effective at this than others, mostly as the result of their internal motivations and capacity to embrace change.

75% of all learning is said to occur informally – that is, the result from everyday human practices of observation, conversation, reflection, and participation, which are dictated by the learner defining what he or she needs to know to satisfy an internal need. And yet, we know companies spend millions on formal trainings, such as instructor-led courses and elaborate online or distance courses, based on defining and offering a set of learning solutions to meet a set of performance objectives that will secure the human capital to reach strategic business goals.

While these may seem like contradictory approaches, they’re actually serving the same purpose: Both the individual learner and the organisation want to succeed.

Recognising the value that each form of learning offers, to make the best of both and better leverage time and resources overall, consider how they might work hand-in-hand with these questions:

• Where and when does your organisation need to introduce formal training to reinforce essential skills required for credentialing or to advance business strategy?

• How might your organisation weave subject matter experts who are involved in producing and delivering formal training, such as an online credentialing course into the informal learning fabric both before, during and after formal training is delivered?

• After formal trainings are delivered, how might your organisation adopt communities of practice (your wikis, blogs, and RSS feeds) to communicate and stay abreast of the impact of your formal training delivery?

• Paying attention to adult motivations and adult learning theory, how can your organisation leverage the creativity of informal learning and communities of practice to reinforce the value of full participation in timely and necessary formal learning?

• How can you measure the impact of formal training through an increase in the use of the informal exchanges?  For example, might your organisation benefit from monitoring the number and quality of conversations on a given topic on the company blog pre and post formal trainings?

For more information about how to tackle these questions within your organisation, contact Kineo at:

For questions or comments on this article, Margaret Kelsey can be reached directly at



Shaping the future of learning

Kineo helps the world’s leading businesses improve performance through learning and technology. We’re proud of our reputation for being flexible and innovative, and of our award-winning work with clients across the world.